In the current issue of The New York Review of BooksNew York Times columnist Gail Collins argues that Texas has messed with public education. The problem, in her view, is the enormous influence that the state exercises over the textbook market. Because it’s so big, publishers develop products to meet Texan specifications. But those specifications are set by an elected Board of Education that has sometimes been dominated by…wait for it…evangelical Christians, political conservatives, and, often enough, evangelical Christian conservatives.

Collins has a point when it comes to natural science. The efforts of some members of the Texas BOE to remove or limit discussions of evolution, which go back to the 1970s, reflect badly on them and on the state. But she veers off course when she turns to social studies, which used to be called history. Rather than documenting how conservative nuts have hijacked the curriculum, she ends up exposing how parochial are her own assumptions about what should be taught.

Here’s Collins’ lament, with responses interspersed:

The final product the board came up with called for a curriculum that would make sure that students studying economic issues of the late nineteenth century would not forget “the cattle industry boom” and that when they turned to social issues like labor, growth of the cities, and problems of immigrants they also take time to dwell on “the philanthropy of industrialists.” When it came to the Middle Ages, the board appeared to be down on any mention of the Crusades, an enterprise that tends to reflect badly on the Christian side of Christian–Islamic conflict. And when they got to the cold war era, the board wanted to be sure students would be able to “explain how Arab rejection of the State of Israel has led to ongoing conflict.” Later, they were supposed to study “Islamic fundamentalism and the subsequent use of terrorism by some of its adherents.” And that appeared to be pretty much all young people in Texas were going to be required to know about Arab nations and the world’s second-largest religion.

Let’s take these issues in order. First, the reference to the cattle industry doesn’t seem to have any particular political significance. Instead, it looks more like a bit of Texas boosterism. But so what? Surely no schoolchildren will be harmed by reading a few lines about ranching–which is all the space that most topics get in a general survey of US history.

Second, it seems entirely appropriate that students should learn about the development of private philanthropy in the 19th century. Where, one wonders, does Collins think that the cultural institutions enriched those growing cities came from?  To mention only one example, which I blogged about in a previous post, the New York Public Library system was founded with help of a $1.5 million gift by Andrew Carnegie.

The apparent minimization of the Crusades is troubling, although their implications for medieval Christianity are considerably more complicated than Collins seems to recognize. But I see nothing wrong with teaching students about Arab rejection of Israel or the rise of violent Islamism. Of course, much depends on the details. In particular, the phrase explain how Arab rejection of the State of Israel has led to ongoing conflict seems to exclude other sources of conflict. But that could be fixed with different wording, such as “consider how Arab rejection of the State of Israel has contributed to ongoing conflict”. The topic itself seems reasonable.

By my reading of the completed high school standards, moreover, it is simply not true that this is all that Texas students are asked to learn about Islam. They are also asked to describe Islam’s relation to other world religions; explain its influence on law and government in the Muslim world; explain its social and political impact in various regions; and describe the development of the medieval caliphates. That sounds like plenty.

Collins continues:

For the most part, however, the board seemed determined just to sprinkle stuff its members liked hither and yon, and eliminate words they found objectionable in favor of more appealing ones. Reading through the deletions and additions, it becomes clear that a majority of board members hated the word “democratic,” for which they consistently substituted “constitutional republic.” They also really disliked “capitalism” (see rather: “free enterprise system”) and “natural law” (“laws of nature and nature’s God”).

I can’t see much problem with the first change. As Collins surely knows, the Constitution was not widely understood as a democratic when it was framed and ratified. The term democracy only became common in American politics in the early 19th century, and was initially associated with the Democratic Party. In any case, there’s no harm in encouraging students to reflect on the possible difference between constitutional and popular government. Similarly, I don’t think anything in particular hangs on the word “capitalism”. As Galupo argued the other day, the term is ambiguous enough to refer to a variety of economic arrangements. And the substitution of “laws of nature and nature’s God” for “natural law” is a straightforward reference to the Declaration of Independence. Here, to be sure, there is a trace of meaningful conservatism, although not of the yokelized ignorance of Collins’ caricature. As Jeffrey Bell observes in his recent book, “What divides social conservatives from social liberals is this: Most—not all—social conservatives believe the words in that sentence [of the Declaration] are literally true. Most—not all—opponents of social conservatism do not believe those words are literally true.”

Collins’ refusal to take conservatism seriously even as an historical development explains her discomfort with the topics for study of recent decades. She objects:

For the modern era, they needed to study “the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s,” including Equal Rights Amendment opponent Phyllis Schlafly, the Contract With America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority, and the National Rifle Association. 

Yet the whole premise of the piece is that conservatives have achieved a significant and perhaps disproportionate influence on American public life. Collins, it seems, objects to teaching the context that makes her own argument intelligible.

This is unusually silly. That may be the reason that Collins backs off in the final paragraphs. In fact, she admits that the problem with the Texas standards isn’t the specific content they include or omit. Rather, its the proliferation of issues and themes that makes it impossible for the textbooks to tell a coherent story.

This “loss of narrative”, to paraphrase the popular historian Russell Shorto, is a real cause for concern. One reason many students don’t like studying history is that the materials used to teach it are confused, confusing, and therefore dull.

What Collins doesn’t realize–or at least doesn’t consider–is that the loss of narrative is inevitable in a vast pluralistic society like the contemporary United States–or even just Texas. There’s no story that will ever satisfy everyone, so textbooks are unavoidably the product of political compromise. It’s just that Texans do their wrangling in public.

In my view, the difficulty of settling on a coherent understanding of what to teach and why has always been the best argument for school choice and home schooling. Collins is right that students around the country shouldn’t be subject to the whims of the Texas BOE. But she assumes that the answer is for someone else, presumably “experts” from famous universities, to write the standards. Wouldn’t it make more sense to find ways to allow to students and parents to find educational materials and practices that meet their needs?